Marin’s 5th District supervisor was inspired by JFK, John Burton and Gary Giacomini
Photo by Tim Porter
“You were born to be a politician,” Judy Arnold’s dad told her in the hospital just before he passed away. Arnold, who has worked in government-related positions all her adult life, is the county supervisor for Marin’s 5th District, which encompasses most of Novato and the nearby communities of Bel Marin Keys, Indian Valley and Black Point.
“Dad was a staunch Kansas City Republican,” Arnold notes with a wistful smile. “And I’m a dedicated Democrat,” she adds, breaking the tension with a hearty laugh and an engaging smile. To Arnold, being a Democrat clearly does not mean being anti-business. “If we don’t have healthy businesses,” she’s quick to say, “we can’t do anything for the environment and poor people.” In her 2006 campaign speeches, she stated, “Marin doesn’t deal with its economy; in past years it hasn’t had to.” Then, following the 2008 economic crisis, a countywide survey showed jobs and the economy second only to traffic congestion as concerns for residents of Marin. So the 70-year-old mother of three and grandmother of five, who’s been married to singer-songwriter Bruce Arnold for 37 years, knew it was time to act.
Last year Arnold was instrumental in forming the Marin Economic Forum, a public-private partnership dedicated to enhancing Marin’s economic vitality. “The county pledged $150,000 to fund the forum, conditional on the business community raising a similar amount,” Arnold says. “And inside of four months it was done. Following a year of operating, we’re now looking for a CEO. I’m really proud of that.”
Supervisor Arnold’s political history is replete with people who accomplish things. After graduating from college in the early 1960s, she was lured by JFK’s visionary charisma and spent two years working for the late Sargent Shriver. “I wrote pamphlets trying to get professional people to join the Peace Corps,” she recalls.
A decade later, she managed the campaign of legendary Marin politician Gary Giacomini, who was running for supervisor in Marin’s 4th District. “I was the first woman to be officially called a campaign manager,” she remembers. “And after that, I served as Gary’s administrative aide, which was another first for Marin.” It was here, Arnold admits, that she began to imagine someday being a supervisor.
In 1996, when Supervisor Giacomini retired, Arnold took an administrative position with Marin’s powerful (and colorful) state senator John Burton. “I saw the power and how to use that power to legislate effectively,” she says. “I learned so much from John.” And when Burton became president pro tem of the state Senate, Arnold got her political baptism by fire. “It happened during the Gray Davis recall,” she remembers, “and John was essentially running the state. So in Marin and Sonoma counties, I had to take on many of the senator’s duties.”
After working with Burton for eight years, Judy Arnold was elected to the Novato City Council, where she served two years before being elected supervisor.
Who were your political influences? For a 22-year-old college graduate, the Kennedy era was magical. And working for Sargent Shriver was a thrill; he so believed in the Peace Corps, and his passion trickled down to everyone there. We thought we were going to save the world, that everything was going to be all right. Then when JFK died, it was heartbreaking — I couldn’t believe it. I stared at the television for three days.
From John Kennedy — and from Gary Giacomini — I learned the power of being able to speak on your feet and be almost poetic about what you say. They were both amazing and, of course, Gary still is. However, John Burton influenced me the most. He gets right to the point, straight to the issue, and I liked that. He also taught me about dealing with constituents, which led me to run for Novato’s city council. Both John Burton and Gary Giacomini are very passionate yet straight-talking politicians. I’d also like to say that about my friend and fellow county supervisor Charles McGlashan. Charles was a true visionary, and we miss him every day.
Please discuss SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. I’ve been on the SMART board for three years, so I know it’s a huge challenge. It is the biggest capital project ever for both Marin and Sonoma counties. I think it has great potential, and more people than projected will ride it. There are people who still want its funding repealed. However, I feel encouraged; the board is working together now, and there’s no longer the “bunker mentality” we had in the past. The die will be cast in late April when SMART goes to the market for bond funding.
What, in your mind, are the biggest challenges facing the nation, the state and Marin County? Nationally, it is the emergence of almost a third political party, the tea party, which is only causing more polarization, and I fear everything will come to a standstill in Washington; they can barely get a budget together. The moderate Republicans are increasingly moving to the right. In California, the biggest problems are the budget and the economy. I admire Governor Brown for not being tempted to craft the budget with swamp gas and mirrors, as previous governors have done. However, he’s promised to deliver a balanced budget, and if he can’t get a vote of the people regarding tax extensions, the cuts affecting the poor are going to be draconian. Marin’s safety net will collapse. We get 36 percent of our budget from the state, and if that money disappears, we could see soup lines. As for the county’s biggest challenge, I think it’s traffic congestion. One way we can deal with that is through developing workforce housing so people will not have to commute in and out of the county. A second challenge is getting our businesses healthy. Without a healthy economy we can’t do much of anything.